It takes a lot to rouse Ferome Brown from bed after dark. But gunfire usually does the trick.
Whenever gunshots crack through the streets and back alleys of Minneapolis, his cellphone jingles with a frantic call from a gang member announcing that a friend is being loaded into an ambulance or a mother wondering why her son hasn't come home.
The night is just getting started for the onetime gang member-turned-community organizer. Before long, his black Dodge Charger sidles up to the crime scene and he sets about his solemn work — comforting grieving relatives and reassuring people unnerved by the violence that has brought blood and fear to neighborhood streets.
Brown visits those blocks in the aftermath of shootings, dispensing his brand of street therapy in some of the city's most crime-ridden and impoverished neighborhoods, where mail carriers quicken their pace and residents regularly fall asleep to the sound of gunshots outside their windows.
And so even at 44, the longtime youth worker drags himself out of bed night after night. Recently, he was recruited to the Police Department's newly formed community crisis-response team that shows up after shootings and other violent episodes to offer counseling.
Those who know him best say his North Side roots and past run-ins with the law give Brown credibility with younger gang members who are automatically suspicious of outsiders.
"He's known for working with some of the hardest kids, some of the young people involved in gangs, who're looking for a way out," MAD DADS founder V.J. Smith said. Smith says Brown continues his outreach work because he believes that young people seeking a way out of the street life are most likely to listen to someone who has walked in their shoes.
In an age when a taunt in a YouTube music video or on social media too often leads to bloodshed, the former gang leader imparts a simple message: think before acting. But any real solution of the problem, Brown insists, starts at home. He encourages fathers to become more involved in their children's lives from the start.
"I had a kid who couldn't go home unless he would bring his mom some weed," he said, shaking his head.
But there have been many successes along the way, too.
He proudly recalls the story of the time he managed to talk his way out of a confrontation in the parking lot of the McDonald's restaurant off W. Broadway in north Minneapolis, in which a youth pulled a gun on him.
As he was walking up to the front door of the restaurant, he was approached by a teenager clutching "a cannon that was almost as big as him." Brown eventually persuaded him to put down his gun and leave peacefully, he says. The youth later became a regular at Brown's weekly mentoring sessions.
"I've been in rooms with 50 guns on the table and they're ready to go to war," Brown said in a gravelly baritone. "There's no coffee sessions. These are real serious issues that I put my life in danger for."
Half the job is ferrying kids to and from job interviews, checking homework, organizing signature-gathering campaigns and hosting community events, like a 3-on-3 basketball tournament at North Star Elementary School two years ago that drew about three dozen gang members, all of whom agreed to set their differences aside for the day.
On Saturdays, Brown holds court at Sumner Library, mentoring a group of middle and high school students, who like him were products of some kind of crisis.
As a brawling youth growing up on the North Side, Brown got involved in criminal activity from an early age. He and his friends later formed a gang and started hanging out on street corners into the late night hours, making hand-to-hand sales of cocaine and crack. He went by "Pizza" in those days. At 24, he was indicted on charges of possessing cocaine with the intent to sell it and sentenced to 44 months in a federal prison. It was a turning point in his life.
He stopped associating with the gang, Brown says, and started reading every book he could get his hands on, devouring Nathan McCall's "Make Me Wanna Holler," "How to Eat to Live" by Elijah Muhammad and other literature that explored African-American history and identity.
But upon his release from prison, he again felt the tug of the streets.
"When I got out I had a plan, man, but my homies had a plan for me, too; met me at the halfway house with a brick" of cocaine, Brown recalled recently. He said that he eagerly accepted the package, intending to sell it and split the profits with the others as he had done so many times in the past. Later, he changed his mind and decided he needed to get out of the drug game for good.
"I couldn't do it — it was different. I was a different person," he said.
After he got out, he started an outreach program called Urban Youth Conservation with another longtime North Side peace activist, Jimmy Stanback, who died last month from a gunshot wound to the head. His death remains under investigation.
While Brown relies on the connections he has fostered over the years and the respect he has garnered, his criminal past does him little favors at City Hall.
Brown has for months preached that the key to stopping the violence is by investing in some of the same troublemakers that many say are beyond saving.
"If you have a felony, if you have a record, you're pretty much the best person to work with these kids, but barriers will be up in front of you," said Smith, noting that city and state funding usually goes to established groups that may not necessarily be the most plugged in with the streets.
"One thing about Minnesota, they always hold whatever your past is, against you," Brown says, only half joking. "How do you ever say: 'I've paid my debt to society and I want to help out?' "
Heather Martens, former executive director of Protect Minnesota, an anti-gun advocacy group for whom he worked, said that she often marveled at his ability to get youth to open up.
"He was really kind of an ideal partner to join us," Martens said.
In the meantime, Brown toils among the ranks of those tasked with healing the North Side — its wounds, he said, caused by the breakdown of traditional family structure, thanks in part to the percentage of black men locked up for drug offenses. The irony of that isn't lost on him.
"I played a big role in that, and can I tell you something man, that's why I'm so determined to change the structure of what's going on," Brown said. "I hate it, I hate it, that's something I vowed to never do again: sell crack. That tore up the families."